Wednesday, June 29, 2005

# Posted 2:48 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

SHOPPING THE OP-ED: If you want to get published, you have to move fast. Bush's speech ended six hours ago. Just now, I sent off an op-ed about the speech to an editor who I hope will look upon it kindly. Here's what I wrote:
Can Bush's Speech Turn Around the Polls?

On Monday, Donald Rumsfeld declared that “Lasting progress and achievements do not come from reacting to headlines or chasing mercurial opinion polls.” Yet judging from President Bush’s decision to address the nation on Tuesday night, the White House isn’t as cocksure as the secretary of defense. History, however, is on the secretary’s side.

Prime-time, televised addresses to the nation are the most powerful weapon in the president’s rhetorical arsenal. Their impact on public opinion polls is often instantaneous. In other words, when the president spins, a certain percentage of the public gets spun.

The problem is that those voters who change their minds after hearing the president are also extremely likely to change their minds right back. What history shows is that the supposedly ignorant American public has a remarkable ability to judge presidents on the basis of their achievements, not their promises.

Over the past thirty years, televised addresses to the nation have rarely shifted the polls more than five percent in the president’s favor. Even the most persuasive of presidents, such as Reagan and Clinton, found it extremely hard to put more than a dent in the polls by speaking directly to the American public.

Conversely, those presidents known for putting their foot in their mouth tend to have almost as much of an impact on the polls as their more eloquent brethren. Thus, there is every reason to believe that Tuesday night’s address to the nation will persuade three or four percent of the American public that things in Iraq aren’t going as badly as the media would have us believe.

Both Democratic and Republican presidents tend to argue that journalists’ obsession with reporting bad news damages their efforts to build public support for the administration’s agendas. As recently as Monday, Secretary Rumsfeld lashed out at the media for reporting only the violence and not the progress in Iraq. However, the record suggests that the American public is no less immune to the media’s pessimism as it is to the president’s optimism.

Over the past month or so, there has been a lot of talk about new polls that show that the American public has finally turned against the war in Iraq. In fact, public support for the war rose significantly in June, leaving it at about the same level it was twelve months ago.

Last week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll showed President Bush gaining or holding his ground on almost every measure of support for the war. Thus, fifty-eight percent of the American public wants our soldiers to stay in Iraq until the job is done. That number has not varied by more than a single percentage point over the past twelve months. Moreover, the public fully understands that getting the job done in Iraq will take years, not months.

Poll data shows that (in hindsight) the American public has decided that invading Iraq in search of chemical and biological weapons was not a good idea. But it also recognizes that Iraq has become the central front in the war on terror.

This sense of priority explains much of the public support for staying the course in Iraq. But the American public also has a long record of supporting only those wars that it believes America can win. When the public turned against the war in Vietnam, it wasn’t because of the rising death toll, but because of a growing sense that the war could not be won.

Thus, one should infer from the stability of public support for the war in Iraq that the American public does have faith in the president when he insists that we are making real progress. The elections in Iraq this past January were a spectacular success that Bush alone seemed to expect. This spring, the Iraqi assembly bridged its ethnic divides in order to form a stable government. Right now it continues to reach out to the embittered Sunni minority in spite of the insurgents’ vicious attacks on Shi’ite and Kurdish civilians.

In the coming months, American support for the war will not depend on how often the president brings television cameras into the Oval Office or how often the latest suicide bombing makes it onto America’s front pages and evening news. Far more important is whether the Iraqi assembly can muster support for its new constitution and whether Iraqi security forces can demonstrate greater resolve on the battlefield.

If the people of Iraq continue commit the lives of their sons and daughters to the struggle for freedom throughout the Middle East, the American people will continue to commit the lives of their sons and daughters as well.
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